The birds started singing in the trees about the time that Anie had to start watching her feet while she walked. She lost her energy in the space of a yawn, and the growing light spreading through the sky on her right seemed wrong. She blinked heavily. Thea slowed, holding steadier, as Anie started to stumble. The others all pulled in a little closer, as if they might lean against each other.
The sun climbed heedlessly into the sky.
“When do we sleep?” Anie murmured.
“It’s not safe yet,” Chas said. But he was slowing too. The whole crowd ahead of them seemed to be stuttering in their steps. The trees were thinning, the ground evening out, but their feet seemed more and more hesitant to leave the ground.
The fortress was awake as Seryn slipped back in through the open gate.
It was well after midnight, and the lamps were lit as soldiers crossed and recrossed the yard. The walls crawled with too many shadows, the watch doubled by men and women crowded shoulder to shoulder to oggle the mottled orange sky, the dim fire, and the sharp outline of the trees in front of it. A few of them glanced at Seryn, made a perfunctory check of her person, but didn’t seem to notice that she had come back twice. The yard rumbled with their curiosity. In one corner, someone was loading a wagon with water, the only bright point of hurry.
Macsen found Seryn in the morning. The sun was barely up, and she hadn’t put her boots on yet, but he strode through the hall to put a firm hand on her shoulder.
“Come with me,” he said.
Ignoring the rest of the guard where they sat on the side of their cots, he turned on his heel to leave again.
Seryn followed him out, footsteps echoing dully in the wide space between the walls. There were few other people moving in the gray light – a few loading breakfast over already healthy fires, and a few more settling their clothes and minds for a new day – and she looked at none of them. Eyes on Macsen’s back she kept stride with him out into the yard, around the corner of the main hall, straight to his office.
He struck a match sharply and lit the lamp on the wall with steady hands. Seryn shut the door to keep out the morning chill. Macsen sat behind his desk and waved for her to take the chair across from him.
“How much did you know?” he asked before she could cross the room.
She took her next step more slowly, sank into the chair holding his eye carefully.
Osanna watched the white-hot piece of steel skitter off the anvil and reached to catch it without thinking. Closing her fingers around it, she realized she had imagined this before, calculated what it would take to hold the heat-softened edges of the heavy brick in a midnight thought, half-asleep and forgetful of realities.
It was lighter than she had imagined. But she was used to carrying them at the end of long-armed tongs, not seated in the center of her palm.
It was nearly midnight before the musicians started laying down Lea’s favorite spell. The lamps had burned down to a flickering mimicry of yellow sunset, and the drums began to tap the air. They thudded and hummed, slow, steady, dragging out for a long moment while she began to grin and her heart seemed to steady itself against the beat. Then the guitars climbed on top, one high, one low, whirling like things freshly taught to fly, and she forgot how to keep her heels on the floor, or her hands at her sides, or her feet still.
Tiernan didn’t order the retreat until he had judged the perfect time. There was a tight balance, between when it became apparent that they had gained all they would from this fight, and when the soldiers still held the strength to perform maneuvers without desperation. And there had been so much desperation in the eyes of his soldiers when he began. Too early, and they would have hesitated, unwilling to give up on winning the day. Too late, and they would rush to obey, run and stumble. He waited until he saw the right moment, the catch of breath, the almost-fall and the last muster to press forward.
Deorsa would have called for it sooner. He knew it from the way she rallied her riders, ordered or them to sweep the field just a moment too late for them to hammer down the enemy with all the force they were capable of, like she had been ready to rally them for an entire different sweep. The one that would give the rest of the army the space to fall back. She shot him a look that was full of questions and demands across the battlefield.
But he waited.
Until he could see the men and women he had brought down into this valley slowly realize for themselves that this fight was not going to rescue the ones they had all left behind. He watched their shoulders slack, and then yanked them back, before that knowledge drove them beyond his reach.
He yanked himself back. Retreat now. Maintain the strength to try again. He moved them northeast, as quickly as he could.
Ryan and I had a pretty good childhood, all things considered.
We had mutually agreed a long time ago not to mention the hand-me-down fiascos. Not the embarrassments or the petty revenges we had dealt in with the knowledge that anything I talked Mom and Dad into buying for me would one day get passed down to him. There was a pink and blue and yellow tye-dye t-shirt that had gotten burned, though the only thing that was really odd about that was that it had happened on purpose.
We had mostly agreed not to tally up who gave who more scars too. I’d gifted him a chipped tooth. He’d thrown an elbow that put a permanent line through my right eyebrow. Neither of us was afraid to use the obvious – minor – injuries to win an argument from time to time. We never talked about the white line just beneath my ribs that once needed thirteen stitches to keep my insides where they belonged. We definitely never talked about the jagged thing on his calf where bone had torn skin. We’d both covered them with tattoos of things we wanted to remember more.
After a half-drunk midnight where we both broke down the fine points of all the ways our parents had wound us just too tight and broken us for better things, we agreed that there was no need to confess sins twice. Especially when they weren’t our own.
We had survived. To the brilliant ages of twenty-seven and twenty-four, even if there were days we felt ninety, and days we felt five. We had gotten our smiles and forged our precious silences.
Sitting across from him now, though, I knew he was going to break one of them.
Jeyd had been on the walls when the fight began. He watched the Guard ride out, trip on each other, and unlike Seryn, did not race out to catch the ones who fell. Seeing the enemy flood out from between the trees, he called down for them to shut the gate moments before she did.
Aled had slipped through.
The gates had thudded shut. The soldiers braced it and tumbled into defensive positions.
Seryn knew that there, behind thick walls, with a stocked armory and full larders, the fortress would have held. She and what was left of the Guard would have been lost, but the rest would have been safe behind the walls for days. For weeks. For months. Because that was the glory of a fortress.
But while she was down in the clash and clatter, obscured in the rush of her own heartbeat, waiting for the end she had always expected to come, Jeyd saw the vise of the encroaching army tighten. And press. And quietly, almost invisibly, brace to defend as if they had already laid claim to the ground to the south.
Emmet and Koen struck as different paths as brothers could. There were ten years between them, making Emmet the dark-haired, bronze-eyed son of a man who had died too young, heir to everything his mother commanded, and Koen the blonde-haired son of a man still alive, captain, conqueror, and blunter weapon. Emmet’s keimon stood in his halls with him, guardians and entertainers under glittering lights. Koen’s stood at ship rails, face into the wind, and learned nothing better than how to burn, how to buy glory with ash.
Bryn had known that long before she chose where to apprentice. As young as they had been, she knew her twin, Riya had understood as well. And neither of them had hesitated to split ways, jump on a ship, train for the halls. Different was something magical to two ten-year-olds who had spent their whole lives as walking mirrors of each other.
At the age of ten, my father knew exactly what he would be. Like his mother and his grandmother, he woke one night to an over-warm room, the walls glowing in cascading white-blue-black from the liquid flames pooled around his hands. Like his mother and his grandmother – all keimon born from keimon – he had known it was coming, and did what any ten-year-old should have done in the quiet confidence of midnight: he raised his hands and let the light chase the shadows for hours.
By the time he woke up, he had figured out how to shape the fire, so rather than tell his mother the precious good news, he walked a delightfully clumsy starburst of an animal across her path. He said it was a fox. She said it was a little monster with three legs and a second head where its tail should have been. They both grinned at each other.